Anna Segher’s The Seventh Cross: A Story of Moral Choices

Back on May 1, I wrote about my cousin Netti Reiling, who under the pseudonym Anna Seghers became a well-known leftist intellectual, activist, and author. I wrote about her best-known book, The Seventh Cross, published both in German and in English while she and her family were living in Mexico in 1942. Two years later it was made into a film starring Spencer Tracy, Hume Cronyn, Jessica Tandy, and others.

I’ve just finished reading the book. It took me quite a while to read in part because I seem to read in short spurts these days, often when I am sleepy. It also was a difficult book to read—both in terms of the painfulness of the subject matter and in the way it was written. But when I got to the second half, I couldn’t put it down as it turned from a slow-moving set of character studies to a suspenseful escape and chase.

It is an extremely well-written book. Seghers takes you into the minds of her characters so that you see their psychological development as well as their actions. The basic plot is simple: a man named George along with six others escapes from a German prison camp where political prisoners are kept, and the Gestapo and SS chase them down. Various people living in the nearby towns get involved in different ways with the escape and the chase. I won’t spoil the story more than that, but it’s not really the story that is Segher’s dominant focus. Rather, her focus is on how this story affects and, in some ways, reveals and changes the inner thinking and moral choices of the numerous characters.

The structure of the book is what makes it difficult to read at first. Seghers introduces numerous characters without linking them to each other or to the main character, George. Both the number of characters and the fact that the reader has no idea why they matter to the story made the first half of the book a struggle for me. I couldn’t keep the characters straight. Who was Ernst the shepherd and why did I care about him? Why do I care about this boy named Fritz and his girlfriend? What role does Franz have in this whole story? Who are all these various Nazis working at the prison camp? And so on. Perhaps if I’d read the book faster and not just one short segment at a time, I’d more quickly would have seen the forest and not just each individual tree. But at the pace I was reading, I’d forget who Franz or Fritz or Ernst was and have to flip back a few chapters to refresh my memory.

But once I reached the middle of the book and was able to read more quickly, I realized what a brilliant work this is and well worth the struggle to get to know the various characters. Seghers’ ability to get into the heads of the characters and see how they struggle to choose between their own safety and what they know is right is masterful. As you read, you wonder whether Fritz and Franz and all the others will do what’s needed to be done to help George or to save themselves. That’s what makes the book suspenseful. It’s not a typical crime or war story where the suspense lies in finding clues or in watching the bad guys get closer to the good guy while the good guy uses his brain to find a new way to get away. No, the suspense lies inside the minds of the characters and their personal moral codes. Frankly, I still have no idea what role Ernst the shepherd has in the story. Maybe someone who’s read the book will have an explanation. But overall each character does in the end become three-dimensional and integral to the overall story.

One thing that I did find odd about the book is that aside from one very brief mention of the mistreatment of a Jewish man, Seghers does not at all address the Nazi persecution and slaughter of Jews; she does not refer to the Nuremberg Laws or the concentration camps or Kristallnacht. Seghers was, after all, Jewish. Yet she wrote a book about Nazi Germany that is only about political prisoners, not about the way the Nazis treated Jews. Did she do that to reach a broader audience? Or did she perhaps recognize that although ordinary Germans might assist a fellow German who escaped from a camp for political prisoners, they would not have had made the same choices if it had been a Jewish person who’d escaped from a concentration camp?

I’ve not yet seen the film, and unfortunately it’s not available on any streaming service. I could buy a DVD from Amazon, but alas—I no longer have a DVD player. Damn modern technology! Do I invest in a DVD player just to watch one movie? I am debating it. But usually I find that movies based on books are not nearly as good as the books themselves, and it was my cousin Netti’s writing that I was most interested in.

As I wrote about in my post about Netti/Anna, The New York Times review of the movie, which was overall a very positive review, made one unusual comment at the end.1 I will quote it again here:

Without in the least overlooking the bestiality of the Nazi brutes nor the miserable self-surrender of German citizens to their black regime, this film … visions a burning zeal for freedom in some German rebels and a core of decency in common folk. …[T]he basic theme…is that in men—even in Germans—there is an instinct for good that cannot be destroyed.….

The big reservation which this writer holds with regard to this film is that regarding the discretion of its theme at this particular time. Without any question, it creates a human sympathy for the people of a nation with whom we are at war and it tends, as have others, to load Germany’s crimes on Nazi backs. Obviously this film can make sentiment for a “soft” peace. It looks as though we are getting a dandy “thriller” at a pretty high price.

It is true that the book (and apparently the film) portrays many of the characters in ways that reveal their basic morality although it also certainly portrays those who worked at and led the prison camp as inhumane and lacking in moral decency and many of the minor characters as spineless and complicit with the Nazis. But I can understand why in 1944 when the US was fighting Germany in World War II a reviewer might have objected to a film that portrayed any German in a flattering light.

But with the perspective of hindsight, that seems less objectionable. Seghers was at heart an optimist about human nature and perhaps she needed some hope in 1942 that many ordinary Germans would make the right choices and act morally. She had fled from Germany and then from France, seen her husband arrested and then released, and would ultimately learn that her own mother, Hedwig Fuld Reiling, had been murdered by the Nazis. She was not naïve; she was not sympathetic to the Nazis or those who supported their cause or their actions. She was just a human being holding out hope that other human beings would do the right thing. Sadly, not enough of them did. Most Germans were too afraid to resist the Nazis or had been coopted and persuaded to adopt the Nazi cause, and thus far too many people were not saved from their murderous captors.

But Seghers’ point was that when good and brave people do stand up for what is right, evil can be defeated. We need that lesson today in 2020 as much as people did in 1942.

Anna Seghers (Netti Reiling) Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-P1202-317 / Sturm, Horst / CC-BY-SA 3.0 / CC BY-SA 3.0 DE (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en)

 

 

 

 

 


  1. Bosley Crowther, “The Seventh Cross, Anti-Nazi Drama, with Spencer Tracy, at Capitol,” The New York Times, September 29, 1944, p. 18. 

My Cousin Anna Seghers: Activist, Author, and Survivor

The youngest child of Helene Goldschmidt and Salomon Fuld was their daughter Hedwig, born in 1880 and married to Isidor Lutz Reiling. They had one daughter, Netti, born in Mainz, Germany, in 1900. Hedwig was my third cousin, twice removed, and her daughter Netti was my fourth cousin, once removed. Their stories are those of tragedy and triumph.

Hedwig did not share the good fortune of her older siblings. She and her husband Isidor were still living in Mainz in 1940 when Isidor died on March 10 at the age of 72.

Isidor Reiling death record, Year Range: Sterberegister 1940, Band 1
Ancestry.com. Mainz, Germany, Deaths, 1876-1950. Original data: Personenstandsregister, Sterberegister, 1876-1950. Mainz Stadtarchiv.

Hedwig did not get out of Germany in time. She was deported to the ghetto in Plaski, Poland, on March 21, 1942, and was murdered sometime thereafter by the Nazis. The record on Yad Vashem has no date or place of her death.

This Page of Testimony filed by her cousin Regina Blanche Rosenberger1 indicates that she was killed in a concentration camp, but does not name which one or when. Thus, Hedwig was one of the millions of Jews whose deaths were not recorded by the Nazis, but who were murdered by them.

Hedwig Fuld Reiling, Page of Testimony, Yad Vashem at https://tinyurl.com/t6vr4dg

Hedwig and Isidor’s daughter Netti did survive. If you look at the Page of Testimony above, you will see that Hedwig was identified as “mother of the author Anna Seghers.” Anna Seghers was Netti Reiling’s pseudonym, and she was a well-known author. Because of her renown, I was able to find a treasure trove of material about Netti including some old photographs.2

Isidor Reiling was an art expert and antique dealer like so many of his Goldschmidt in-laws. His daughter Netti developed an interest in art history, and in 1920 she moved to Heidelberg to attend the university there. She wrote her doctoral thesis on “Aspects of Jews and Jewishness in the Work of Rembrandt.”

It was while she was at the university in Heidelberg that she joined a group of left-wing intellectuals and met her husband, Laszlo Radvanyi. Laszlo was born in Budapest, Hungary on December 13, 1900. He studied economics and philosophy at the University of Budapest in 1918 and became interested in radical politics. He eventually ended up at the University of Heidelberg and continued his studies there.

In August 1925, Netti and Laszlo were married. Each had adopted a pseudonym for their writings. Netti became Anna Seghers, inspired by a Dutch artist Hercules Seghers whom she had studied at the university. Laszlo’s pseudonym was Johann Lorenz Schmidt after an 18th century German theologian. They had two children, Peter (later known as Pierre)(1926) and Ruth (1928) and were living in Berlin in 1928.

Seghers published her first novel The Revolt of the Fisherman in 1928, the same year she joined the Communist Party in Germany. She published a second book of short stories about poor workers in 1930 and two more books in 1932 and 1933.

Her left-wing views resulted in her books being banned when Hitler came to power in January, 1933, and she was even briefly arrested, according to some sources.  According to her son Pierre, he was sick with scarlet fever at the time, and his mother had taken him to a children’s home in the Black Forest to recover. When she heard of the Reichstag fire on February 27, 1933, she returned to Berlin. The Nazis claimed that communists had set the fire, and Netti/Anna was denounced by a neighbor. The police showed up at their home to arrest her. According to Ruth, the police did not remain long because they were afraid of catching scarlet fever. Whether or not Netti/Anna was ever taken into custody seems unclear.

The family left Germany soon thereafter and escaped to France. They lived in Paris for seven years where Laszlo started a free university for German refugees; he continued to work on anti-fascist, left-wing causes; Netti/Anna published several books during this time and also spent some time in Vienna and in Spain during the Spanish Civil War.

As a Hungarian and known communist, Laszlo/Johann was interned as a “suspected national” by the French in a camp in southern France. When the Nazis invaded France and occupied Paris in the spring of 1940, Netti/Anna and the children hid in Paris until they were able to escape to Marseilles. They were eventually able to free Laszlo and leave France on March 24, 1941, when the family sailed to the US and ultimately Mexico, where they settled.

During their time in Mexico, Anna Seghers wrote her best known book, The Seventh Cross, about seven political prisoners who escape from a Nazi concentration camp. It was first published in the United States and Mexico in 1942 and became the basis of a 1944 film of the same title starring Spencer Tracy, Hume Cronyn, Jessica Tandy, and Agnes Moorehead.

The New York Times review of the film in 1944 is quite interesting. The reviewer, Bosley Crowther, found Spencer Tracy’s performance “splendid” and Jessica Tandy’s “emotionally devastating.” He described the plot as “hair-raising” and the production as filled with “crackling tension and hard-packed realism” and as preserving the “monstrousness” of Segher’s book.3

But Crowther found reason to criticize the film as being too soft on the Germans:

Without in the least overlooking the bestiality of the Nazi brutes nor the miserable self-surrender of German citizens to their black regime, this film … visions a burning zeal for freedom in some German rebels and a core of decency in common folk. …[T]he basic theme…is that in men—even in Germans—there is an instinct for good that cannot be destroyed.….

The big reservation which this writer holds with regard to this film is that regarding the discretion of its theme at this particular time. Without any question, it creates a human sympathy for the people of a nation with whom we are at war and it tends, as have others, to load Germany’s crimes on Nazi backs. Obviously this film can make sentiment for a “soft” peace. It looks as though we are getting a dandy “thriller” at a pretty high price.

I have not yet read the book nor seen the film, but hope to do one or the other while being confined during this pandemic. There are more current reviews of the book, including this one from The New York Review of Books written upon the publication of a new translation of the book in 2018:

The Seventh Cross is one of the most powerful, popular, and influential novels of the twentieth century, a hair raising thriller that helped to alert the world to the grim realities of Nazi Germany and that is no less exciting today than when it was first published in 1942. … Anna Seghers’s novel is not only a supremely suspenseful story of flight and pursuit but also a detailed portrait of a nation in the grip and thrall of totalitarianism.

Anna Seghers wrote a number of other books while living in Mexico. It was also during this time that she learned that her mother had been killed by the Nazis. Nevertheless, after the war she and her family returned to Germany, first West Berlin, later East Berlin. She continued to be a left wing and communist political activist and to write books based on her political views for the rest of her life. She was a loyal supporter of the Soviet Union and East Germany.

Laszlo Radanvanyi died on July 3, 1978, in Berlin. Like his wife, he had remained a political activist as well as a professor. Netti/Anna died five years later on June 1, 1983, in Berlin.

Rüdiger Wölk,  Münster,  CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)

On November 19, 2000, the German publication Der Welt published an interview with Netti and Laszlo’s two adult children, Pierre and Ruth, which revealed a more personal perspective on their mother. Ruth described her as “very warm, a normal mother,” and Pierre said she was “a very intuitive, extremely sensitive, even compassionate woman.”

Ruth Radanyi died on July 18, 2010 at the age of 82. Her brother Pierre, an author and physicist, is still living as far as I can tell. At this link, you can hear him read one of his mother’s poems.

The story of Netti Reiling/Anna Seghers and her family is yet another example of the literary talents of the Goldschmidt family as well as another example of the courage and resilience of the human spirit in the face of devastating hatred and danger. Although it may be hard to understand how Netti could support the totalitarianism of the Soviet Union, I cannot judge her for her views, given what she endured and what she lost as a young woman.

Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-P1202-317 / Sturm, Horst / CC-BY-SA 3.0 / CC BY-SA 3.0 DE (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en)


  1. Regina Blanche Rosenberg was born Regina Blanche Goldschmidt, and she was the daughter of Julius Goldschmidt, younger brother Helene Goldschmidt Fuld, Hedwig Fuld Reiling’s mother. That is, she was Hedwig’s first cousin. Regina immigrated to Canada and died in 1992. More on Regina when I get to her father’s story. 
  2. Since I don’t know when these works were first published, I can’t determine whether they are in the public domain—even though many of them were taken before 1923. See https://www.legalgenealogist.com/2012/03/06/copyright-and-the-old-family-photo/  Thus, I won’t be posting them, tempting as it might be to do so. But if you follow some of the links in the post, you will be able to see the photos. 
  3. Bosley Crowther, “The Seventh Cross, Anti-Nazi Drama, with Spencer Tracy, at Capitol,” The New York Times, September 29, 1944, p. 18.